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Greetings: Autobiography of a Cratedigger

Robert Nelson Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives

Greetings! My name is Robert Nelson. As an introduction to KUER Music, I can imagine I was asked to participate because of my legacy of 25+ years of radio programming on Salt Lake City’s local community station KRCL 90.9FM - Your Station that Rules the Nation. (KUER’s head-man John Greene“hired” me when he managed KRCL).

Most of that “musical curation” has taken place every Saturday from 4-7  p.m., juggling reggae music on the Smile Jamaica program. Year after year without interruption: same guy, same show, same time, same station. I like to quip: just like The Simpsons on Sunday Night, there has been Robert Nelson laying down the roots on Saturday afternoons.

I often get asked how I came to be so involved in devoting more than half my life to a volunteer gig. (I have never made one dime “working” for KRCL and that is more than fine with me). To host a radio program that long for gratis, the assumption is that I must have a deep interest and devotion to popular music. Indeed I do. Let me tell you a story…

I was born inFort Benton, Montanaduring the mid 60s. Where the plains meets the mountains, my hometown is known as the Birthplace of Montana.Located along the Hi-Line in the north-central part of the state, Fort Benton was the farthest point north and west goods could be shipped - by boat - along the Missouri River. Before the railroads, it was a rocking town full of outlaws, gamblers, homesteaders, federal soldiers, Blackfoot warriors and several Chinese laundries. By the time the Interstate Highway System emerged a century later, Fort Benton became a bucolic little farming community. Brutally cold during the long winters and one of the biggest grain producing counties in the nation, Fort Benton had about 1,800 inhabitants when I grew up there.

The nearest movie theater was 40 miles away in Great Falls. 150 miles to the Canadian border, Fort Benton is a pretty remote place to grow up during the Pre-Information Age of 70’s/80’s American society. How does a youth isolated from common/local media opportunities, 20 years later, take over the reins of an ethnic music program like Smile Jamaica?

Fort Benton had no record stores, no radio station, no concert halls/clubs (not counting the county fair.) We live in a beautiful river valley, so the Great Falls rock station was constantly being drowned out by the massive country station playing Eddy Arnold, Conway Twitty and the Statler Brothers. The Coast to Coast hardware store had a little rack of popular LPs but that was more Olivia Newton-John than Ted Nugent. Two bowling alleys, six bars and six churches. One streetlight, a Circle K and the Tastee Freeze was only open from June to Labor Day. Underage drinking, cruising the drag and hunting/fishing were the primary leisure time activities that far north so long ago.

I was one of the first generation of “latch key” kids where, during the 70’s recession, a lot of moms came into the workforce. My beloved mother, Jeannette, was one of those trailblazers. In lieu of a babysitter, she cleverly found a mechanism to hold three bratty kids’ interest while she worked as a bookkeeper in town. Vinyl. Records. Black wax. My parents’ music taste was along the lines of The Carpenters and Nat King Cole. But there was a mechanism out there that a working mother could cheaply employ to fascinate her kids in the afternoon while she added her paycheck to the family nest egg.

When I grew up there was a phenomenon of the cheap, functional Various Artist LP collections of recent vintage rock, soul and pop hits. Back when there were only three to four television channels, they advertised these titles on late night network broadcasts. You bought these sets at Kmart or the local CENEX gas station, not what we would know today as a record store. Labels likeRonco and K-Telwere the main purveyors of this lowest common denominator music. They would cram ten songs on a side with slap dash, cut and paste artwork. They would then sell these platters for $2.99 or half of whatever the cost of a “legit” release you might find at the local Budget Tapes & Records headshop/record hut that any decent sized city in Montana would have.

Ronco and K-Tel are the ones you saw late at night hawking products like the Pocket Fisherman, Veg-O-Matic and spray on hair. I dialed up (the cratedigger’s Bible) to re-acquaint myself with their catalogs. Their forte was disco, country and pop collections of one hit wonders: Super Hits! Dynamic Hits! Number One Hits! Always the hits, never the obscure. Music as commerce not “art.” K-Tel made serious money bowdlerizing pop hits with the atrocious Hooked on Classics albums featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. The modern equivalent might be the UK’s Now That's What I Call Music. 

They introduced me to my first reggae song: Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now." My first herb tune, (although at 10-years old, I would have had no idea about the seven leaf): Jim Stafford’s country-pop novelty “Wildwood Weed." My first download from iTunes came via Ronco: Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” There was no rhyme nor reason to these sets. You might have Helen Reddy who would segue into Black Sabbath who would move into Kool and the Gang or some popular AM soul of the day.

There was none of the regimentation of today’s consolidation of music by fixed genre. It was randomly democratic as long as it was popular. For a kid cut off from access to live music made by my contemporaries (there was no Great Falls Tower Records), these low-fidelity collections were the beginning of how I learned about popular music.

I remember the first of these compilations mom had acquired, being a Warner Brothers box set of four LPs that chronicled the artists on their stable like The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers next to Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and America. My recollection of that box set (that I still have and play from time to time) would take me back to around first grade, 7-years old. A label sampler like this holds up pretty well 40 years later. To this day whenever I hear “Tumbling Dice” or “Happy,"  I don’t think Exile on Main Street, I identify the source as  Superstars of the 70s.

Credit Robert Nelson Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives
The first addition to the Smile Jamaica Ark-ives, circa 1973

So from about the age of seven until junior high, K-Tel and Ronco were my musical mentors. I played those albums (and 8-tracks) constantly. What passed for the Nelson Hi Fi was a giant piece of furniture with a heavy wood counter top hiding a drop-down turntable. I could stack about six LPs on the spindle, play them through, flip them over and go again. It was hell on the vinyl itself: each record crashing down on top of the one before. Hundreds of repeat plays with probably the same needle that came with the console my parents got as a wedding gift long before I was on the scene.

Whenever I would go to Great Falls with my mom to K-Mart, I would always try and slip a new title into the shopping cart. (Mom would bribe me with a free LP if I would try on a new pair of Tuff Skins since I hated clothes shopping).

The 8-tracks especially had the utilitarian value of keeping three kids occupied on our summer vacations to California. You could take the 8-tracks outside and shoot hoops or play croquet or hop-scotch. And when the models came with a plug-in microphone (Mr. Microphone – another Ronco perennial), it was Pre-Historic karaoke. I could bust out a mean version of Elton John’s “Island Girl."

Mom bought them for the purpose of “crowd control." For me, they were imprints on my musical discovery. (I still have about a dozen of them. The others were surely purged in summer garage sales for a dollar a record. I would kill to have the 8-tracks back. The lowest of lo-fi purely for the novelty artifact value).

From the Dead Formats shelf of the Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives

As I got into 5th/6th grade, I started to gravitate toward 45s. I have always had a collector “jones.” Like most 70’s kids it would have started with comic books and baseball cards. (I had a Hank Aaron 715 Home Run card that would have paid for a semester at college. But alas, mom purged all my cards alongside the K-Tel and Ronco records during summer garage sales. I still love her though).

These 45s were pretty easy to attain at places like Sears, Montgomery Ward and Kmart. They cost 99 cents and you got two songs (no King Tubby dub version on the B-side). They would have been the contemporary radio hits of the day circa 1975-1980. Sometimes they had a cool picture sleeve. I played them on a cheap, little fold-up portable turntable in my bedroom. After a while it became annoying to play one and flip it over, so I made the first of many “mixtapes.” These consisted of holding a microphone connected to a cheap, portable cassette recorder and then hitting play/record at the same time. (I’m sure that is just how Steve Jobs invented iTunes).

Last summer mom had me clean out a closet in my old bedroom. I discovered a cache of these 45s I had forgotten about. They were in a sturdy metal carrying case that I now use for hauling reggae singles to juggle on Smile Jamaica. So I spent last weekend going through this stack of about 50 singles. 35 years later, here is a critique of Bobby Nelson’s first foray into record collecting.

·      Radio Rockers: A full half of them are 70’s rock hits: Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (Epic); Queen’s double-side hit “We are the Champions/We Will Rock You" (Elektra) picture sleeve; Kiss “Calling Dr. Love” (Casabanca); Blue Oyster Cult “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Columbia) – although I remember playing the B-side “Tattoo Vampire” more frequently; Steve Miller Band “Fly Like an Eagle” (Capitol) – foreshadowing my love of dub effects.

·      One Hit Wonders: Climax Blues Band – “Couldn’t Get It Right It” (Sire): I heard this gem on the radio on my way to the Montana spelling bee finals, (I placed 16th out of 64; word I misspelled: quixotic), and I bet it is my favorite 45 out of this collection; Nick Gilder “Hot Child in the City” (Chrysalis) – I have a scorching reggae version of this by an off-key Canadian singer named Norma King that is “all killer no filler;" Bay City Rollers “I Only Wanna Be With You” – the One Direction of the 70's: My first rock concert, Montana State Fair 1976’s token Rock Night performers. Because nothing says American Bicentennial more than four Brits wearing tartan plaid.

·      Disco Inferno: Remember I came of age in the mid 70s when disco wasn’t a four letter word: Andrea True Connection “More, More, More” (Buddah): Mom wouldn’t buy me Ted Nugent’s Wang Dang Sweet Poontang for Christmas but this porn star’s groans and moans made it past her filter; Hot Chocolate “Every 1’s a Winner” (Infinity) – I played this one as much as Climax Blues Band; Santa Esmeralda “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Casablanca) – Latin cover of Eric Burdon so grooving I tracked down the 12” as an adult; all the KC and the Sunshine Band boomshots (my sister Stacey and I both liked them more than we would care to admit as adults).

·      Novelties: I collected all the Star Wars and Rocky theme soundtracks, John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back (Kotter)” (Reprise); Rick Dees “Disco Duck."

·      Who dis?: Singles by long forgotten groups like Starbuck, Player, Smokie, Exile and Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids. K-Tel and Ronco approved I’m sure.

·      WTF: Too many Bee Gees, Abba and Hall & Oates (those must belong to Stacey, yeah right). Why did I buy so many Cliff Richard singles? And my secret shame: Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” – gahhh, remember, I was 10-years old when this wimp nugget was unleashed on the listening public!

This elementary school kid had a decent instinct for quality soul: Brick, early Commodores, mid 70’s Jacksons, O’Jays, Spinners and Stevie Wonder; even Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” – a pop update of New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. I played The Brothers Johnson Radio update of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23” as often as The Rolling Stones Some Girls Christmas season 1978. And in high school I don’t know why my picture sleeve of Blondie covering John Holt & The Paragons rock steady masterpiece “The Tide Is High” didn’t set me on my destined path of reggae obsession back in 1980 instead of 1987.

Credit Robert Nelson Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives
Pic sleeves from Bobby Nelson's Pre Smile Jamaica 45s collection

I put aside my 45s habit for a decade (I probably have 3,000 reggae 45s now) and evolved into LPs. I remember the first one of those I acquired as well: school shopping with mom just before the start of 7th grade. Anyone remember another main source of popular music back in the day? Woolworths. The Best of the Doobie Brothers. Vinyl. With the great front cover of a desktop diner jukebox, foreshadowing what was to come in the decades since for me: acquiring, listening, obsessing over and organizing music (mom paid of course). 

Woolworths Sept. 1977: The Alpha Record in the Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives. Post Ronco/K-Tel Era

Those are the “roots” of my music collecting habit that has not subsided in the decades since. My radio “career” has simply been an excuse for the obsessive-compulsion of music collecting – cratedigging - for 40 years; more than 80% of my life. That’s why I do radio for free. It justifies the expense once the First Bank of Jeannette quit forking over the cash for my record collection. 

Robert Nelson hosts Smile Jamaica every Saturday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. MT on KRCL 90.9.

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